Murray Rothbard, Libertarianism, and Why Children Are Not Simply Houseguests
As a libertarian, it pains me to admit flaws with libertarianism as a philosophy. But one problem in libertarian theory I’ve become increasingly sensitive to is the problem of how children are handled in a libertarian society. I believe I know where the problem stems from, and also why certain existing arguments are flawed, but don’t have much idea on how to rectify these flaws without violating a certain amount of libertarian theory. Oh well. Here is my attempt, at least, to look at one of the more interesting arguments for how libertarian theory should treat kids: Murray Rothbard analogies parent/child relations to house-owner/houseguest relations.
Before getting into that, I want to briefly outline why I think libertarians have such a hard time with the “child problem.” Libertarians, I think, are good at dealing with two different ideas: people (in the sense of autonomous adults) and property. To put it bluntly, children are neither of these and are probably best seen as somewhere in between the two in resemblance. Children resemble, but are not, autonomous adults in certain ways: they are physically autonomous and their brains/minds are not linked to other brains/minds in that they can decide certain things for themselves. But in other ways, children resemble, but are not, property: parents are legally responsible for taking care of children and children are in some sense ‘acquired’ by choice, children do not have a real choice in who their ‘owners’ are, etc.
But children are neither persons nor property. They are not quite autonomous persons because we – except some libertarians – recognize that children lack the mental ability to make certain decisions on their own or have the type of absolute freedom we grant to adults. Nor are they property because, morally, it strikes us as horrendous to think about parents being able to do anything they would like to their children. Unlike property, children have at least SOME freedoms.
Now, onto the Rothbardian argument, taken from an essay called “Kid Lib” (chapter 7 in the book Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature). In his essay, Rothbard is reacting to some libertarian and social liberal arguments’ that children should be let free to do what they would like at most or all times. Rothbard rightly notes that “no well regulated piece of property, including a household, can be run intelligently in such a manner.” Rothbard rightly notes that
We see here the fundamental flaw in the progressive notion that parents should allow their young children unlimited freedom to do as they wish and not to “impose” training, values, or education on them. For the young child, still not in possession of knowledge, values, self-discipline, or much rationality, is hardly in a position to be able to decide what he should be doing or wishing.
The problem is that this recognition is at odds with an analogy Rothbard makes earlier in the article, analogizing children to houseguests:
Where do the property rights lie? In the first place, the overriding fact of parent–child relations is that the child lives on the property of his parents. The child lives either in a house owned by his parents or in an apartment rented by them. Therefore, as in the case of any other “guest” living on someone else’s property, he must obey the rules set down by the property owners for remaining on that property.
The reason I say these two depictions of children – one as somewhat helpless and the other as house-guest – don’t square with each other is that in modern parlance, a “guest” in the house is presumably there by choice where a non-autonomous child is not. Of course, the analogy of children as house-guests is somewhat accurate in that the child is literally being provided for on property they are not paying for. But the analogy stops there. Unlike other house-guests, children did not choose to be in that house and presumably do not have means (mental, financial, etc) to leave that house. (Of course, older children might, but young ones certainly do not and cannot be seen as analogous to house-guests.)
Now, to try and make this analogy stick, Rothbard gives the same rights of exit to children as he would to house-guests.
It is grotesque to think that the parents can actually own the child’s body as well as physical property; it is advocating slavery and denying the fundamental right of self-ownership to permit such ownership of others, regardless of age. Therefore, the child must always be free to run away; he then becomes a self-owner whenever he chooses to exercise his right to run-away freedom.
This will strike most of us as morally strange and the fact that many libertarians are not struck the same way is troubling. I can only attribute this lack of concern for the running-away of a five year old to the libertarian temptation to see entities either as property or autonomous persons. Of course, there is another category: non-autonomous persons (physically or mentally disabled, children) . Libertarians have structured their philosophy around rational persons and property rights and this third category (posing a confound to the theory) is disregarded.
Children seem to connote a special case, as I’ve mentioned, because the whole of child psychology is unanimous in demonstrating that children simply lack the cognitive ability to function as adults. We recognize the parent/child relationship as valid precisely for this reason: a recognition that children need guardians to, literally, guard their interests. Rothbard himself acknowledged this above, and it is difficult to see how he can simultaneously hold that children should not be allowed to do anything they’d like but that they can choose to run away.
The situation even gets more tenuous when we see Rothbard’s suggestion that parents can buy and sell children, so that parents that don’t want their children can exchange those children with those who do want (and can pay for) children.
In a purely libertarian society, the young child is not as bereft as might at first appear. For in such a society, every parent would have the right to sell their guardianship rights to others. In short, there would be a free market in babies and other children.
First, I want to say that as a libertarian, I see no huge problem with the idea of a ‘baby market.’ As Rothbard points out, we already trade babies under the laws of adoption, only we prohibit profit from the transaction.
That being said, the problem with this position is that it cannot simultaneously be held with Rothbard’s position that children have the right to run away. In other words, one cannot simultaneously hold that children can be sold by parents, that the children are analogous to house-guests (who cannot generally be sold) and that children have the right to run away (which means they are certainly not property and cannot be sold as such).
If Rothbard holds that children can be bought or sold, then this means that their parents have the right to buy and sell them WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT (which means that they are as “bereft as might at first appear”). It makes little sense, then, to say that children have the right to choose where they will live by running away!
And still, it gets worse!
Parents, then, have not only the moral right but the moral obligation and responsibility to raise their young children in preparation for adulthood, to care for, shelter, educate, and train their persons and their character. But suppose some parents do not perform such moral obligations? Can we say that the law—that outside enforcement agencies—have the right to step in and force the parents to raise their children properly? The answer must be no.
This makes the situation worse in the following way: Rothbard is saying both that the child has the right to leave the house whenever she pleases, but that there can be NO LAW preventing parents from doing things that would restrict this autonomy! There is no law, say, against keeping your child handcuffed and shackled in the basement, cutting their legs off, or depriving them of sensory stimulation so as to ensure lack of brain growth.
It seems then that, under Rothbard’s system, parents have every incentive to ‘protect their investment’ by ensuring that the child cannot run away (after all, they may want to sell the child). And since a child who can run away cannot fetch money, the parent might as well make sure that the child cannot run away by keeping her in the house against her will. (There is nothing in Rothbard’s system to prevent this, and it is difficult to imagine how the child has the right to run away while there is no prohibition on coercing the child in any way the parent sees fit).
So, here we have it: Murray Rothbard
(a) analogizes children to houeg-uests despite recognizing that, at a young age, they are incapable of choice, which most house-guests have
(b) suggest that the child has the right to run away despite also suggesting that children do not have the right to do as they please in other areas.
(c) suggests that children can be bought and sold (and can’t choose where they live) despite suggesting that they are free enough to run away (and can choose where they live)
None of these three positions make any sense, and the three of them put together reveal that Rothbard’s position is simply not much of a position at all. Children are property that can be sold, persons who can run away at will, autonomous enough to choose to run away, but not autonomous enough to choose what to eat for dinner.
I can only conjecture again that this bizarre position is the result of libertarian theory stretched beyond its limits. As mentioned, libertarians are quite adept at dealing with property and autonomous persons. The problem is that children do not fit into either group and, as such, libertarian ‘solutions’ to the ‘child problem” tend to end up as quite unsatisfactory.
While will not here offer a position of my own, I will hint at what I think the answer is. Following arguments made by education philosopher Harry Brighouse, I believe that it is best to see children as beings who will be autonomous in the future and, as such, treat acts that would significantly hinder that autonomy as violations of the child’s liberty. In other words, children may be best viewed as if they were people who didn’t know what their interests were yet, or at least, could not defend them. Parents, thus, would be charged with protecting the child (because they CHOSE to have the cild and, in so doing, accept tacit responsibility for that child’s care), and the state could only erect such laws as would protect the child’s future autonomy.
Libertarians will doubtless find a solution like this unsatisfactory, and as a libertarian myself, I have a certain dissatisfaction with it (as it NECESSARILY abridges the parents’ rights and justifies possible state intervention). But I cannot see any other way. Children are simply not property or autonomous persons.